By Dr. Nicole Avena

All humans are born with an immune system that is able to protect the individual to some degree without previous exposure to external pathogens. This is called innate immunity. However, a major part of the immune system develops after exposure to foreign bodies and particles out in the world. Particularly during childhood does an individual develop and strengthen their immune system. This early period of development is crucial as it can impact an individual’s immune system and even brain functioning into adulthood.

With that in mind, what are some ways parents can help boost their child’s immune system?

Vitamin C

This vitamin, also known as ascorbic acid, is thought to play a role in how well white blood cells can fight off infections that enter the body. White blood cells take up and use relatively large amounts of vitamin C when defending the body against pathogens, so it is important to make a consistent supply of vitamin C readily available for the cells. Supplying the body with vitamin C through food choices and supplementation is especially important because the human body is not able to make this crucial nutrient on its own.

Here are some ways to add vitamin C to your diet:

  • Eat citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits
  • Other fruits like kiwi and strawberries are also good sources
  • Eat vegetables like broccoli, red pepper, and brussels sprouts
  • You can also take a supplement, but it’s better to obtain vitamins directly from food

Vitamin E

This is another vitamin that aids cells so they can defend the body better. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects cells from oxidative damage caused by free-radicals. It also helps in the production of white blood cells in order to more effectively protect against pathogens. Interestingly enough, according to the Annals New York Academy of Sciences, vitamin E is one of the few vitamins that actually increases immune efficiency when taken in doses higher than the daily recommended amount. Of course, this ability has far more sufficient evidence in animals than human subjects, but still speaks to the powerful properties of this vitamin.

Some dietary forms of vitamin E are:

  • Wheat germ oil
  • Almonds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanut butter


Zinc is a vital trace mineral that the body needs to function properly. The importance of zinc to the human body was actually only recognized about 40 years ago, but the role it plays is crucial. Zinc helps to regulate cells associated with the immune system so that they are in balance and can do their job. Zinc is also an antioxidant and helps to fight against oxidative damage to cells. Zinc is especially important for children as it aids in normal growth including the development of the immune system.

Some foods that contain zinc:

  • Red meat and seafood
  • Beans and whole grains
  • Fortified cereals (this is a good option for children that are picky eaters or who do not eat meat)

As you can see, getting the proper nutrients to boost your child’s immune system comes from eating a diverse range of whole foods. As usual, you can never go wrong with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains! Nicole Avena, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler, and What to Eat When You’re Pregnant.  The post was adapted from What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler.